The board of trustees at the University of North Carolina is under intensifying pressure to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine journalist who is scheduled to start as a professor at its journalism school in July.
Ms. Hannah-Jones, who helped create The Times’s 1619 Project, a series that has drawn criticism from conservatives because of its re-examination of slavery in American history, said she was considering legal action after the university’s board did not formally consider the matter of her tenure.
In a statement on Thursday, Ms. Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree from the university’s journalism school in 2003, said she had retained legal counsel to respond to the board’s “failure to consider and approve my application for tenure — despite the recommendation of the faculty, dean, provost and chancellor.” She said she would be represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., Levy Ratner, P.C., and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A.
“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said in a statement issued by the Legal Defense Fund, “but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech.”
Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill, said in a statement: “We can confirm the University has received a letter from attorneys representing Nikole Hannah-Jones. We have no additional comment at this time.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones was named the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at U.N.C.’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the university announced in April. The university’s board of trustees, which approves tenure for faculty, is governed by a body appointed by the state legislature, which is Republican led.
Ms. Hannah-Jones’s supporters include more than 200 academics and other cultural figures who published a letter in The Root on Tuesday, saying the board had displayed a “failure of courage” in its refusal to grant tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer in commentary for her introductory essay to the 1619 Project.
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The signers, including the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the historian Eric Foner and the filmmaker Ava DuVernay, said the board’s failure to take action was “almost certainly tied to Hannah-Jones’s creation of the 1619 Project.”
On Tuesday, 1,619 U.N.C. alumni and students took out a two-page ad in the The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., calling for Ms. Hannah-Jones to be given tenure. Hussman School faculty members published a letter May 19 that was critical the board’s refusal to grant it, saying it “breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school.”
A Legal Defense Fund spokesperson said in a statement that Ms. Hannah-Jones’s credentials exceeded those of prior Knight chairs. “U.N.C. has unlawfully discriminated against Ms. Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race,” the statement said. “We will fight to ensure that her rights are vindicated.”
The matter of tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones was brought up in a January board meeting, but the board members did not act on it. Instead, Ms. Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract as a professor, with an option for tenure review. Ms. Hannah-Jones said in her statement that tenure had been a condition of her employment.
The 1619 Project, which gets its name from the year that enslaved Africans were brought to the English colony of Virginia, drew early criticism from five prominent historians, as well as from Republican politicians and conservative commentators. The series moved to the center of cultural debate partly because of a 1619 Project curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center, a series of school lesson plans offered on its website.
The tenure dispute became public this month in a report on the website NC Policy Watch.